SALT LAKE CITY — September is Family Meals Month. With school back in session, fall sports in full swing, and schedules as busy as ever, just getting a meal on the table for your family each night can be difficult, stressful and time-consuming.
What if I told you it doesn't have to be that way? With some simple hacks, getting dinner on the table can be quick, easy and even fun.
Why eat together as a family?
Studies have shown positive, lifelong advantages of family meals. Eating together as a family not only nourishes our bodies, but our minds as well. According to The Family Dinner Project, some benefits of family meals may include:
- Better academic performance
- A greater sense of resilience
- Lower risk of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression
- Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
- Lower rates of obesity
- Healthier eating for the entire family
To help your family reap the benefits of eating together, registered dietitian nutritionists share their top hacks to make family meals easier and more enjoyable for both parents and kids.
1. Set a goal
How many nights a week do you want to eat together as a family? If you aren't eating together at all right now, perhaps a goal of two times a week may be ideal. Look at your family schedule for the week and decide which nights will work best to sit down together as a family to eat dinner.
There might be some nights when not everyone can make it, but having a goal to get as many of you to the dinner table as possible is a great place to start.
2. Plan ahead
Taking some time at the beginning of the week to plan out your dinners will help make weeknight cooking far less stressful. You won’t be wasting time wondering what’s for dinner or looking for ingredients at the last minute in the cupboard or at the store.
"I encourage families to create a menu for the week and set aside some time on the weekend to pre-cook meats, starches, and to wash/chop veggies. It really doesn’t take much time, but saves a ton of time for busy weeknights," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kellie Blake of NutriSense Nutrition.
3. Prep beforehand
Registered dietitian Erin Cooper of Cashews and Quinoa recommends, "Prep your ingredients ahead of time! Dice veggies, trim meat, cook rice, prepare sauces ... all of these things can be done ahead of time and will drastically cut down on the amount of time needed to actually prepare the meal the day of."
Registered dietitian Darlene Holop adds, "Make enough for two meals, you can have leftovers the next day or freeze a batch for another day. Cook once, serve twice!"
4. Get everyone involved
Don't do everything by yourself. It's too easy to get burned out doing it that way. Registered dietitian nutritionist Jennifer Enloe suggests, "Get the kids involved in the shopping stage and let them help pick out the vegetables. Then when it comes time to cook each day, let the kids take turns on which vegetable side will be for that night. They will be more inclined to eat what they help choose. Empower them to help make food decisions."
"Place responsibilities on kids as they get older — setting the table, making the salad, cleaning the table, doing the dishes. The kicker is to not do it if they don’t! That just enables them to learn it’s not really their responsibility," says registered dietitian nutritionist Zach Cordell.
5. Keep staples on hand
"Get yourself prepared by Sunday night," recommends registered dietitian nutritionist Sharon Palmer. "Keep your pantry filled with basics such as whole grains, beans, spices, extra virgin olive oil, canned goods, nuts, seeds ... then you can make easy meals all week long."
Registered dietitian nutritionist Mandy Enright encourages using frozen veggies as a secret weapon.
"Save both time and money by using frozen veggies (which are already washed, cut, and ready to go) in your meals. Sauté, steam, and even roast frozen veggies for a quick, simple side dish during the week."
6. Use passive cooking methods
What's better than tossing some ingredients together and not having to babysit it while it cooks? Cooking methods such as roasting in the oven, pressure cooking or slow cooking allow the cooking process to go on without the constant need to check on it, allowing you to time and freedom to do other things while your food cooks.
"Embrace the slow cooker. You can prep the meal for the slow cooker the night before and put it in the fridge overnight. Before you take off for work, set your slow cooker and be so happy that you have dinner waiting for you when you get home in the evening," says registered dietitian nutritionist Lauren Manaker of Nutrition Now.
7. Take short cuts
"There is no shame in using some shortcuts," Manaker says. "Buying a cooked rotisserie chicken to put on top of a bagged salad with some additional chopped veggies and an oil-based bottled dressing is often just as satisfying as a home-cooked meal."
Registered dietitian nutritionist Marysa Cardwell of All of Nutrition recommends using short cuts whenever possible.
"Pre-bagged salads, washed and cut up vegetables, and frozen veggies and fruit. I also always keep a veggie tray at my house with a dip and lots of fresh veggies. When it’s dinner time (or anytime we are hungry) it’s easy to pull out the veggie tray and munch on fresh veggies."
8. Don't be a short-order cook
Make only one meal for the entire family. Don't pressure your kids to eat the entire meal if they don't like it, but don't rush to make them something else they want.
"Make a rule of NO short order cooking by always including at least one item with the meal that you know your kids will eat. That can simply be a side of bread to make things easy," recommends registered dietitian nutritionist Kacie Barnes of Mama Knows Nutrition.
By also serving a "safe" food item with the meal, you know they'll be getting something in their tummies. They'll then have the opportunity to choose to eat at the next meal or snack offered to them.
"This way you can actually sit down and eat. There’s no need for you to be running around fulfilling every request," Barnes said.
9. Put away distractions
Part of the goal of getting together for dinner as a family is to also enjoy each others company. Put away cellphones, turn off the TV, and keep the conversation light-hearted and enjoyable. Share stories about your day, listen to each family member, and nourish your bodies and relationships all at once.
10. Be flexible
Some nights are just going to be busy and you might not get the dinner you planned on made.
Make sure you set appropriate expectations, says Cordell: "Have three to four meals you know the family likes and you can easily make. Don’t beat yourself up."
Kristen Smith, registered dietitian of 360 Family Nutrition, recommends keeping a few frozen meals on hand to help ease the stress and work out of meal planning on a busy night.
"For a quick and easy balanced meal pair a frozen meal with a leafy green salad or roasted veggies. Not only can a frozen pizza with a spinach salad be prepared in minutes but it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser!" Smith said.
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